Last year more than 11 million Americans were victims of information theft. Protect your family with a few simple steps.
The three ways your personal information can be compromised:
Illustration by Stephen Webster
How to Protect Your Personal Information
- Dumpster divers search your trash for personal data.
- Hostile computer viruses gain access to passwords, user names and account numbers.
- Old-fashioned thieves swipe gadgets stocked with sensitive information.
Monitor Your Info
- Shred mail with your name and address, especially credit card statements and any other bills that include account numbers.
- Create passwords with upper and lower case letters and numbers, which are more difficult for criminals to hack, says Adam Levin, chairman of Credit.com. He also recommends using symbols like a "$" instead of an "S."
- Change passwords often. Trouble keeping track? Record them in a secure encrypted thumb drive. Try the Edge SuperSpeed USB 3.0 Flash Drive (edgetechcorp.com, $10-$35).
- Protect computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets with the latest anti-virus and malware software. McAfee's All Access Household guards five people's devices for $149.99 a year (mcafee.com).
- Don't leave your devices unattended in public places. Set up a password-protected autolock feature so no one besides you can access your phone or tablet, says John Sileo, founder of Thinklikeaspy.com.
- Download or enable a GPS tracking app for locating a lost device from the Internet.
- Look into remote "wipe" apps that remove all data, including saved passwords and your address book, in case of loss or theft.
If your credit card number or social security number is stolen, you're more likely to be a victim of identity theft than other consumers, according to Javelin Strategies. While you should always try to minimize your risk, these steps become crucial once your security has been breached.
- Be on the lookout for oddities. Check your bank accounts and credit cards online daily for suspicious activity.
- Sign up for credit monitoring, which alerts you to potential misuse of your social security number. Many banks and retailers offer free monitoring if their data files have been stolen, or check with your credit union or insurance company. To do this on your own, AllClearID's basic identity protection plan is free; the more sophisticated monitoring AllClear Pro is $14.95/month) or My ID Alerts ID Analytics ($4.95/month).
- Consider a credit freeze, says Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert with McAfee. "It's like a seat belt for your identity," he says. Once you call the three credit bureaus—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax—no one can open new accounts in your name. If you need to access your credit, say, to apply for a loan, you can temporarily unfreeze it for about $15 depending on the credit bureau.
Even if you haven't been a victim of bank breach, it's a good idea to pull your credit report once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. If you notice a problem—think unknown credit card accounts or debts—immediately contact the three credit bureaus and consider adding a fraud alert to your credit reports.